The Whip Rule from an Equestrian Perspective

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Thursday, May 27, 2021

This is something that's been brewing in my brain for quite awhile and I feel like a lot of common sense has been lost in the racing industry and that people need an equestrian/horsemanship perspective to understand why some things are done the way they are done in the horse business. I grew up with horses and have been riding since I was five, I have a BS in Equine Business and I founded a nonprofit riding program that provides free riding lessons for low income and autistic kids. So there's my qualifications on teaching horsemanship and horseback riding. And, whether I need it or not, I don't get on a horse without a crop, whip, or whatever you want to call it.

A lot of people who watch horse racing and, even those who really love the sport, are not "horse people." Sometimes the people making rules are not "horse people" and they don't seem to really take the knowledge of the horsemen and women to heart. And unfortunately they make rules for political and "public perspective" reasons rather than understanding the true safety implications behind those rules. I'm afraid this is the case with these new whip rules and the jockeys are taking a stand.

So here's a very basic lesson in horsemanship, so that the general public can understand where these jockeys are coming from and why these rules are so important and possibly detrimental to the sport.

The Foundation of Horseback Riding - The Aids

What you first must understand about riding is that you have natural aids and artificial aids. How effectively you use your aids determines how well you will ride your horse. Riding a horse is not just sitting up there and plodding along with the horse doing all the work, especially in the case of horse racing. You are using your natural aids of legs, seat, hands and voice. Sometimes you also need to use artificial aids. Artificial aids include whips/crops and spurs. Jockeys use their hands, the voice and their crop. They don't have a whole lot of leg on the horse.

One particular important point to understand is that any aid can be abused! Because people can be abusive.

The hands as a natural aid is often the most abusive and far more abusive than whips in many cases. The hands have direct contact with the mouth, the most sensitive part of the horse. Here's an example of abusive hands, misuse of spurs and misuse of crop (and pretty much everything):

The legs are particularly important as a natural aid and it's the one thing that equestrians have at their disposal that a jockey really does not. As an equestrian, you have your legs around your horse. You use them to push a horse forward or to the side. You use them to regulate speed. If you want your horse to move to the left, you push with the right leg and he moves away from the pressure. These two jockeys show impeccable position:

But the key here is that an equestrian has their legs around the horse while a jockey is perched atop the horse. A jockey rides the way he does for the purposes of speed. He doesn't want to inhibit the horse's ability to run. They have to be in perfect balance together. So what aid do you use when you can't use your leg to regulate speed? A whip! What aid do you use when you need to push your horse over towards the rail or away from another horse and you don't have your legs wrapped around him? A whip! 

And every equestrian sport uses a whip, or crop or similar device to encourage forward movement from the horse. We have all kinds of whips! Lunging whips, drop lash whips, dressage whips, trotting whips, carriage whips, hunting whips, riding crops, jumping bats, quirts and racing bats. The whip itself is not abusive. Most of the time, it takes a simple tap to encourage the forward movement you desire. 

The New Jersey Whip Rule

This is where the no whip rule gets dangerous, extremely dangerous. So what is the rule that has jockeys fleeing from the state of New Jersey? It's this one:

Beginning in 2021, jockeys at Monmouth Park will not be allowed to use the whip "except for reasons of safety."

The Jockeys' Guild learned Monday, April 19th that the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, denied its motion to stay the New Jersey Racing Commission's regulation on the use of the riding crop in Thoroughbred racing. The Jockeys' Guild filed the appeal back in November 2020. 

The result has been that many jockeys have announced plans to avoid racing at Monmouth this summer, which is truly unfortunate, but as a rider myself, I can't blame them. Joe Bravo, 13-time leading rider at the track told Thoroughbred Daily News, "Under these conditions, no, I don't think I can ride at Monmouth Park. They didn't even speak to any of the New Jersey jockeys and ask what are your thoughts? In today's era, yes, there should be riding crop restrictions. I understand that. They have them at Delaware, at Tampa and in California. We have no problem with that. But to take the whip completely away...That's crazy. Show me another country in the world with major racing that has these conditions."

On Twitter, several more top jockeys stated their opinions. Antonio Gallardo said he won't be back. Daniel Centeno said he will have to change his plans. Chris DeCarlo says "NJRC really trying to kill horse racing. Jockeys can't fight and do this alone. Everyone that has a vested interest in racing in NJ should step up to the plate and voice their concern to get this overturned."

I get the rules that put a limit on how many strikes, etc. and even though I think those are overboard (and wonder who exactly is counting?), I get that they are trying to make the sport look less abusive. 

The fact of the matter is that today's racing bats have undergone a huge overhaul in the way they are designed. They are not as hard as they used to be, make noise and in most cases the jockey is not making contact with the horse, but using it as visual aid to encourage the horse to run. Equestrians do that too. Sometimes you just wave your whip to get your horse to move forward, because that's what they've been trained to do. The same with a racehorse. When he sees the crop flash by his eye and around towards his hindquarters, he knows that means to go faster. 

You have to keep in mind that a horse is a prey animal. He can't see right in front of him and he can't see right behind him. He has peripheral vision though on both sides of his body, so he sees that whip coming around. He's been trained to run faster when it does. That's how a whip can be used for forward movement without making contact. As a spectator, you're not necessarily going to be able to tell if the horse is being struck or not or if the jockey is just flashing the whip.

Transparency and Consistency - Please!

There's also no consistency in the whip rules across the states. In his Q & A with Rich, Mike Smith talks about the hard part being that the rules are different everywhere. "It becomes very complicated while you're in the heat of battle to have to count. Here in California, you can only use it a certain way. It is not the proper way to use the riding crop, which makes it difficult as well." Read more about why he likes the Tampa rules here

And, yes, they do make contact with the horse. But, they are not abusively beating them as they come down the stretch. That's when they need the most forward movement! They need to try to win right? I mean there's fines for not riding the horse and then there's a fine for trying too hard. The jockeys have to find a balance between trying just enough but not getting carried away.

Being a jockey is not just a job, it's a lifelong passion. It consumes you. It's not easy to get to be a jockey on some of the best racehorses in the world. These guys start young and they work hard to be at the track at 4am in the morning hoping that a trainer will try them out exercising their horses. Hoping that one day they'll get a phone call from a trainer to be put on a horse in a big race. Racing officials need to consult them and really take their opinions to heart before they make decisions and rules that can be detrimental to not only their livelihoods but their lives. It's a dangerous enough job as it is.

Yes, Thoroughbreds love to run. And as Mike Smith put it, "they love to run when they want to." What makes equestrian sports interesting (and fun) is that it's a team sport, but the team consists of a human and a horse. Two minds that have to be on the same page to be successful. If either is having a bad day, it's not going to work out. Everytime you ride a horse, you are training it. You are providing feedback, either positive or negative, on what you want and expect from him. You ask and sometimes your request is granted, sometimes it's not.

I also feel there needs to be some transparency in how these rules are enforced. The rules are different everywhere. New Jersey says no whip, but Santa Anita says you can use it a certain number of times. Is there someone counting every time a jockey uses the whip? How do they know if it was for safety or for speed? Are these fines handed out at the end of the day after someone counts how many times a jockey used his whip? 

What does Racing Look Like without the Whip?

Opening day at Monmouth is tomorrow. According to Bloodhorse, Monmouth has threatened to ban jockeys that refuse mounts on Friday and will not be allowed to ride at the track for the remainder of the meet. John Heims, director of racing and racing secretary at Monmouth told Bloodhorse, "We are having a problem with guys who have been on the backstretch all month long working horses and have calls and are now saying they won't ride Friday but they will ride Saturday. We are not going to let people stick it to us and cost us money by canceling racing. If you feel unsafe Friday, how are you safe Saturday? If it's unsafe and you don't want to ride, I get it. No one is asking you to do something you are uncomfortable doing. The rule is not changing, so if you will not ride Friday since you believe it's unsafe, why would you ride any other day?"

Heim says 12 jockeys are lined up Friday. I guess we will see what horse racing without a whip looks like. 

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